Johnson’s ventilator plan puzzles UK firms wanting to help

Jaguar one of the firms who has reached out to offer assistance. (AFP pic)

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s call on UK manufacturers to build potentially life-saving ventilators is fuelling frustration among companies willing to help, but doubtful of the plan.

Johnson has asked firms like carmakers to ramp up production of the machines, as his government urgently tries to ready the country’s National Health Service for more cases of the coronavirus.

On Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the nation has about 5,000 ventilators and needs many times more.

“They will not be able to get as many as they want,” said Craig Thompson, head of products and marketing at Penlon Ltd, which makes anaesthesia machines that perform some of the functions of intensive care ventilators.

“It’s out of the question that anybody who doesn’t normally make medical equipment will supply medical equipment in the next two months,” he said, citing challenges such as safety testing and regulatory approval.

Johnson, speaking ahead of a call Monday with manufacturers to discuss building more units, told reporters, “Huge strides are being made right now on ventilators, testing kits, oxygen, everything that we will need in the weeks ahead.”

During the meeting, he urged the industry to make as many new ventilators as possible by getting involved in the design, assembly, testing and shipping, according to a statement.

No answer

Yet the plan has yet to get off the ground.

Tony Hague, chief executive officer of Midlands-based manufacturer PP Control & Automation, said he called a government hot line to offer assistance but was met with an answering machine.

“UK manufacturers are discussing and mobilising capability, but we’re all sat here like lemons,” Hague said by phone.

“We don’t know exactly what’s involved, we don’t know what the supply chain looks like.”

Carmakers Jaguar Land Rover Plc and Toyota Motor Corp are among the companies that have offered to help, as has PSA Group’s Vauxhall, which closed all its plants in Europe until March 27.

“As a British company, naturally, we will do whatever we can to support our communities during these unprecedented times,” a Jaguar Land Rover spokesperson said in a statement.

The bulk of ventilator production will likely be done by contract manufacturers instead of carmakers, given it will take time to convert factories, said Stephen Phipson, chief executive of MakeUK, on BBC Radio.

The country’s largest manufacturing organisation has been helping coordinate the effort.

Phipson said the UK has a strong base for contract manufacturing, which refers to firms specialising in taking product designs and building them.

“There’s a three-month lead time for materials, so that’s the biggest challenge,” said James Greenham, managing director of EMS Physio, an Oxfordshire-based manufacturer of medical appliances that doesn’t currently make ventilators.

“I’ve contacted a local manufacturer of ventilator equipment to say if you want any help, we’re here.”